Is it time for a new triple constraint?

It was one of the biggest surprises when PMI’s PMBOK® Guide 5th Edition came out last year. Reactions on various social media ranged from “Finally” to “How is it possible”. But the majority of the project management professionals were just astonished by the fact that the (in)famous triple constraint was no longer mentioned in PMI’s flagship standard.

The triple constraint was and is the cornerstone in project management. Setting boundaries on your scope(/quality), cost & time defines your project and gives you a handle on what to monitor and to manage. Even without the explicit mentioning of the triple constraint in the PMBOK® Guide, this hasn’t changed. But since PMI no longer claims the concept it leaves room for others (notably me) to claim the concept and give it a renewed description.

The old triple constraint

Another change in the latest version of the PMBOK® Guide, and a more substantial one, is the addition of a 10th knowledge area: Stakeholder management. Although the project management profession was in the early years more focused on the technical side of things. More and more attention is nowadays raised to the people aspect of project management delivery, hence the Stakeholder management knowledge area. From my personal experience, this is where I see the new triple constraint: People, People & People. Few, if any, projects are not linked to the realization of a need. A need, created by, or at least noticed by, people. People with their own interpretations and expectations. And the managing of those interpretations and expectations will ultimately define your project’s success

A crucial interpretation of the ‘old’ triple constraint is the fact that the corners are closely linked and one cannot be changed without changing another. For our new triple constraint we would argue that a project manager must spend a considerable amount of time to linking the expectations and assumptions of three key stakeholder groups in the project.

The new triple constraint

The sponsor

The first important one is of course the sponsor, or the client if you wish. He or she provides you with the necessary resources and has a certain need that he or she wants to see fulfilled. It is key that you get to know what that need is, rarely they want the implementation of a new IT-platform for the sake of it. They may want to be more productive, more efficient, minimizing down-times, increase customer intimacy, … or a combination of different reasons. To make things even more complicated, they may not be conscious of that underlying need, so in your toolbox as a project manager you will need excellent listening and question-asking skills.

The user

The second key stakeholder group you need to manage is the user of your project result. Two things are crucial to keep in mind if you want your project to succeed. First, they will have their own interpretation of the sponsor’s reasons for doing the project. If you do not clearly communicate the needs behind the project, they will make up their own (correct ones, but more often incorrect ones). It doesn’t matter how hard you might try: you can’t stop people thinking and talking. The second crucial thing you need to keep in mind is the fact that people do not like (to) change. Never. Unless they have a good reason to, a reason that appeals to their personal motivation. If you want your project to succeed, and as a good project manager you do, it is crucial that you get to know the motivational drivers of the user group. And keep in mind that those drivers can vary for each individual.

Does this mean that you will be able to please everyone? Of course not, but you will have to find a common ground between the motivational ground of the largest group of the users and the needs of the sponsor. If you don’t, you might be able to deliver the product of your project, but will it be called successful if it does not deliver its intended benefits? Is a software implementation successful if it’s up and running, but no one is using it correctly, or not using it at all? Again you will need the best of your listening skills, but without communication skills you will find yourself treading water without a life jacket or the coast guard nearby.

The project team

Our third and last cornerstone of the new triple constraint is the project team. Not only will they also have to have a strong skillset in communications. It will be your task to keep them focused on the needs and expectations at hand. All too often a project team gets lost in the technicalities of the project, whether it is the construction of a new building, software implementation, product development or any other type of project. Making sure that the technical part of the project is state-of-the-art is of course important, but it will be useless if the product is not aligned with the needs of the other stakeholder groups. Here again, your communication skills will be crucial, but also your listening skills, because your project team will have their own motivation(s) and understanding of the expectations. If you do not manage them in accordance with the other key stakeholder groups it is very likely your project will not succeed.

The ‘old’ triple constraint was said to be crucial in managing your project, and I concur, but if you don’t manage the new triple constraint in parallel you will often find yourself delivering projects where in the end no one is happy about.

Photo © Sebastiaan ter Burg

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